Remotes. In the living room I’ve got one for the TV, one for the DVD player, one for the stereo, and one for the PVR/satellite receiver. They’re all critical, since even if you want to cross the room and poke buttons on the device, there are functions that are difficult to find by navigating menus, and some simply can only be accessed from the remote. My TV remote can control some of the functions of the DVD player, and a few of the functions of the stereo, but none of the PVRs. The PVR remote can turn the TV on and off and control the volume, but not control the stereo or the DVD player. The DVD player is supposed to control the TV, but I’ve never gotten that to work right, and the stereo’s remote won’t talk to anyone but the stereo. No matter which one you need, that’s the one you can’t find, despite the fact that a couple of them are HUGE.

What I needed was a universal remote that was easy enough to use that my family would use it, sufficiently programmable to support all of the critical features for multiple gadgets, and didn’t gobble batteries like candy. Oh, and it would be nice if it was easy to program. And ergonomic. And lighted so we could use it while watching movies in the darkened room. What I needed, I discovered, was a Harmony remote.

In the box with the Harmony 688 there was a USB cable and a CD. You need to install the Harmony software on a PC (or Mac) with an internet connection, and then you hook up your remote. Once plug-and-play recognizes it, the remote fires off a setup wizard to let you set up the devices you use. The wizard is really simple and easy to use, but a bit of a warning is necessary here. The wizard tells you that you should be sure your choices are correct before you push the button. Believe them! If, for instance, your little scroll-y mouse wheel changes the contents of a drop-down just before you click okay, you can’t back up to change it. Even though you can still configure everything manually later, it’s hard to figure out how to get out of the wizard and fix the mistake, so before you start follow their advice and get the brand and model number of all of the devices you want to control and enter them carefully. How comprehensive is the list of devices? Well, the “wizard” you’re using is actually an interactive web page, and the database contains a huge variety of devices and is updated regularly, so it’s unlikely you have a device it can’t find.

Once you have everything plugged in, you get to set up some “activities.” These are common tasks that involve making changes on multiple devices, such as “Watch DVD” or “Listen to Music.” Very easy-to-use wizard steps walk you through setting up these activities by allowing you to specify which device controls the input, which one controls the sound, etc. For instance, for “Watch DVD” can turn on the TV, the DVD player, the Stereo, and switch the TV and the stereo to DVD input. When you press Volume + the stereo, not the TV gets turned up, while the navigation buttons control the DVD player. There are five labeled activity buttons, and you can add additional activities that show up as labels for the buttons next to the LCD screen. You can still switch to the mode for a specific device and use it like a normal remote if you want, of course.

Once you’ve made all of your choices, the data is downloaded to your remote. The LCD screen on the remote prompts you to try it out and verify everything works, then lets you know you’re ready to party. A little lost? Not to worry, there’s a built-in help function that will walk you through the remote’s operation.

Okay, cool, so it’s easy to set up and all, but what if I want to customize the remote? Well, there’s a list of functions that your target device supports and you can assign any command to any button on the remote simply by selecting a dropdown. The additional buttons alongside of the LCD display can also be programmed with labels and commands. Of course, the default settings will let you use it without any additional work.

So, what if there’s a command on my remote that’s not on the list? That’s a breeze, too. Just hook up the Harmony remote and tell it you want to add a new command. You point the original remote at your Harmony, press the desired button, it “learns” the new command, and then it’s available to be assigned to any button.

There are also advanced programming commands to allow you to set up really detailed activities if you wish, but I haven’t found the need to use them. The programming options and wizards are sufficiently robust that I’ve managed to get some pretty detailed activities set up without using anything but what the wizards offer.

You can also program your remote to “know” what channels your cable or satellite company provides and set it to skip any you don’t watch when you’re using the channel up/channel down. That’s kind of cool, but it gets better. You can actually specify channels that are your favorites and the remote will download program listings for those channels and display them on the LCD screen. Want to constantly know what movies are available on the movie channels? Just set them as favorites and hook up your remote for a download on a regular basis. You can specify how many channels you want to download and how long a period to download for — of course the total number of channels and time is limited by memory.

Four AAA batteries power it for several months, and since it uses flash memory, it doesn’t lose programming when you change batteries.

It’s not without some minor quirks, of course. The remote only “knows” what state your devices are in by remembering what it has sent to them. If you manually turn something on, the remote gets out of sync. This can result in the remote turning the device back off when you press an activity button that should turn it on. The only way to get it back in sync is to get up and manually put the device in the state the remote thinks it’s in. This has also happened to me once in a while when pressing an activity button. The process of sending the various commands to each of the devices can take several seconds and if you forget and point the remote away from your electronics rack before it’s finished, you can end up with the remote thinking it has turned something on when it hasn’t.

All in all, the Harmony 688 is a fantastic remote. It’s simple enough my family uses it, yet it’s powerful enough that I can set it up exactly how I want it. It has big features like a wonderfully easy programming interface as well as little features like tactile feedback on the buttons and a light so you can use it in a darkened room. This is one of those rare gadgets where they thought of everything you wanted and a few things you didn’t (but learn to love). If you think you might want a programmable remote, your first stop should be the Logitech website.

Tucker Hatfield
–Technology Editor, PDA Today

image1. USB Plug ‘n Play
After completing the Web Wizard set-up, program the remote by simply connecting the Harmony Remote to your computer with the supplied USB cable.

2. Help Button
One touch help for any problems you might encounter.

3. Activity Buttons
Easily start your favorite Activities with just one press of a button!

4. Interactive Display
Easy to read interactive display keeps you in control and informed of what’s going on.

5. Backlight Glow
Backlighting makes the buttons and interactive display glow brightly for easy use in the dark.

6. PVR Control
Convenient access to transport controls (FF, RW, Pause, Play, etc.) makes using PVR/Tivo functions second nature.

7. Learning Ports
Just point your original remote at the Learning Port to capture and use any infrared command with the Harmony Remote.

Harmony 688 Advanced Universal Remote
Logitech, $129.99 to $199.99 on the web